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WSU Researchers Sift Spit For Evidence That Therapeutic Horse Programs Work

Washington State University

Horses have been used therapeutically for years, but new research from Washington State University provides some of the first scientific evidence that it works to reduce stress.

Under stress, the body produces a hormone called cortisol, which is supposed to rise and fall in a particular way over the course of a day.

WSU psychologist Patricia Pendry wanted to know if working closely with horses might help adolescent children better regulate that stress hormone. She looked at kids in fifth through eighth grade, because that’s catches them at a crucial period for their developing brains.

“The brain may be very sensitive to high levels of cortisol, and we believe that is associated with the development of various different health problems,” Pendry said.

Those problems include things like depression and cardiovascular disease.

Fifty three kids took a 12-week course through WSU’s veterinary school, where they rode and groomed horses every week, and then they were compared with a control group who got waitlisted. Researchers measured their cortisol levels before and after the course, using samples of their saliva.

“We asked them to spit through a small straw into a very small little vial that’s specifically designed for that purpose. It’s just like having a straw and blowing bubbles in a glass of pop,” Pendry said.

It turned out spit from the kids who took the course showed they had lower overall levels of stress hormone, and their bodies regulated it better over the course of the day. Pendry hopes the findings will give some credibility to therapeutic horse programs, and maybe help make them more effective.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.